Cooking Tuscan

A Tuscan Year: life and food in an Italian valley
by Elizabeth Romer
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London: 1984

Twelve: A Tuscan Cookbook
by Tessa Kiros
Murdoch Books, London: 2003

Written nearly twenty years apart, one thing these two cookbooks have in common is that they chronicle the year’s cycle of cooking, of family and feasting in Tuscany.  This part of Italy is one of our destinations of choice, not least for the food and wine –  piquant pecorino cheese, addictive fig gelato, rustic hand-rolled pici, wide ribbons of pappardelle with rabbit ragù, sticky Sienese panforte, salami studded with fennel seeds, red chianti, white vernaccia…the list could go on.

These two books have narrative text in addition to recipes which make them both readable and useful cookbooks. Romer’s A Tuscan Year follows the story of her rural neighbor, Silvana, in her farm cucina, cooking dictated by the agricultural year.  Kiros’ Twelve, also organized by the twelve months of the year, is a collection of family recipes and traditions handed down to her by her Italian mother-in-law.

I bought Elizabeth Romer’s book in a small second-hand bookshop in Cambridge (the English one), back in the days when I had to eek out a small food budget. At a reduced price, a second-hand book that detailed cucina povera (literally “kitchen of the poor”) seemed ideal. Cucina povera makes good use of whatever is found throughout the year in the kitchen, the field and the forest – usually basic, cheap ingredients. It is a highly seasonal style of cooking and virtually waste-free.

Back then, I practically lived off the winter minestrone recipe from A Tuscan Year – nutritious, packed with vegetables and meaty white cannellini beans. The soup has become a family favorite we still enjoy. Since the time Romer wrote her wonderful evocative book of a rural lifestyle, cucina povera has made a culinary comeback and is virtually synonymous with traditional cooking of the region.

Kiros, a  prolific cookbook author, began her writing career with Twelve. And, as with all of her cookbooks, they are beautifully laid out and contain lovely styled photographs. Of course, the seasonal recipes (many with their roots in cucina povera) are also spectacular and easy to follow.  I have many favorites including apricot jam crostata, meat and red wine-rich Tuscan risotto, pumpkin ravioli with sage butter, crostini with pears and Gorgonzola, and anything made with porcini mushrooms.

These both are definitely well-loved and well-thumbed cookbooks on my shelf.

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